John Dolan: If this latest Covid carrot doesn’t work ... time to get the stick out

Six months in, the law-abiding majority are getting weary and fed-up with the antics of a small minority. They believe it is time for punishments and deterrents to be utilised. So says John Dolan in his weekly column
John Dolan: If this latest Covid carrot doesn’t work ... time to get the stick out

PATROL: Gardaí at a checkpoint at the county boundary in Youghal this week

IT’S funny how society has zero tolerance for certain crimes, but is willing to give the benefit of the doubt on others.

Take motoring offences. Narrowly break the speed limit, get snapped by a van lurking n some bushes, and voila — the fine is in the post before you can say “The missus was in labour” or “I was being chased by a herd of zombies” (always worth a try).

If you don’t pay the fine quickly enough, or resort to that quaint old defence of pleading not guilty, you risk incurring an even larger fine if you lose. Which you almost certainly will.

And you can forget trying to use the defence that you didn’t know you were breaking the law, as you trundled along in your vehicle in that shneaky 50mph limit stretch of road. That defence only seems to work for Supreme Court judges who incur the public’s wrath by attending golf dinners during pandemics.

No, it’s fair to say us motorists suffer from a zero tolerance policy all the time.

But there are many other areas where offenders are often cut plenty of slack.

Like the habitual burglars and drug offenders you often read about, who are regularly given an umpteenth chance by the courts to mend their ways... but next time, we threaten them with a wag of the finger, we will really, really punish you... possibly.

It seems that some criminals need the carrot approach to wean them off their errant ways, while other law-breakers need to be hit by a large stick repeatedly. Who decides which group deserves which approach is a question that is above my pay grade.

Next time you get a speeding fine, try telling the gardaí and the courts that this was your first offence, or that you were badly treated as a child, and see where that gets you. Let’s just say motorists would stand more chance with the zombie defence...

This carrot-or-stick attitude to offences stretches to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Right from the get-go, the carrot approach has been paramount. We’re all in this together, we’re told, let’s abide by the rules together and we’ll beat this virus and be able to return to our normal lives.

Nirvana, in the shape of a virus-free world, is just around the corner, as long as we’re all good.

Nirvana is the carrot.

This attitude even stretches to the public, guards, media and politicians often not even being sure if a law is being broken when someone forgets to wear a mask in a shop, or flaunts some rule or other.

But not to worry — we’re all in this together. No need to get the law involved...

Except, I wonder if we are now reaching the point where the vast majority of people think this softly-softly approach is wearing a bit thin.

That it’s getting to the stage where the people who won’t wear a mask in a shop, or who travel across a county border when they don’t really have to, need to feel the force of the law.

That it’s time to drop the carrot and start wielding the stick.

Six months in, the law-abiding majority are getting weary and fed-up with the antics of a small minority. They believe it is time for punishments and deterrents to be utilised.

And yes, I appreciate that at the start of the pandemic, few of us wanted to see heavy-handed crackdowns on our liberty. Initially, it was right that the stick was withheld and the carrot of us all in it together was used as bait.

But winter is coming. Cases are rising. There is anxiety about our health system being unable to cope. We have all stepped up to Level 3. It’s getting serious again.

This next three weeks will be a test of this country’s small but significant idiotic and selfish minority: Can they behave and stick to the rules?

If not, if the cases keep rising, if people don’t respect this virus and curb their urges to be ‘free’, then I fear a full Level 5 lockdown is on the cards.

In a fortnight, we should have a good idea whether Level 3 is working. With the school half-term looming then, it may be a good time to go on full Level 5 footing, closing the schools for maybe a week or two as well as the rest of society: A circuit-breaker, they call it. A chance to put the lid down on Covid-19 and perhaps offer ourselves a little freedom in time for the coldest days and the Christmas season.

But if that happens... if this Level 3 doesn’t work, then the Government and gardaí must drop the carrot and get out the big stick. It’s time to police the rules thoroughly and fine people who breach them, with the same zero tolerance as that afforded to motorists who venture 7mph over the speed limit.

And if a law does not exist to stop people flagrantly breaking lockdown rules, bring one in pronto (to appease libertarians, you can always insist the new law has a three- or six-month shelf life).

Taoiseach Micheál Martin seemed to suggest the Government are in agreement with such a shift in policy this week, when he said the Government is looking at the question of fines in relation to enforcing Covid-19 restrictions.

The State’s Oversight Committee met to examine ways to enforce Level 3 restrictions, while the Tánaiste said a system of fines may have to be considered for people who break restrictions imposed due to Covid-19.

Not before time, say the vast majority of citizens who, like me, could barely tell the difference between Levels 2 and 3, since we were already doing all we could to curb this virus.

Leo Varadkar told a meeting of Fine Gael TDs, Senators and MEPs that the Government’s primary aim was to secure public buy-in rather than to introduce draconian measures. In other words, they preferred the carrot.

However, if they go down the stick route, he suggested an appropriate penalty could be in the order of €50 for not wearing a mask, and €200 for not abiding by travel restrictions.

Sounds about right to me. Enough to make the habitual rule-breakers think, but not enough to call it an attack on our civil liberty (although a few are bound to say otherwise).

The law already provides for fines of €2,500 for breach of some laws like organising a gathering or not wearing a mask on public transport. This is only right in a pandemic, but it’s the low-level offenders we will need to target if the cases keep rising.

The next two weeks will be crucial. If we’re not in all this together, then those who break the rules will only have themselves to blame.

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